By Charlie Winstanley
In light of the recent sacking of Rebecca Long Bailey from the shadow cabinet, increasing evidence of a whitewash of the investigation into the leaked Labour report, the removal of key left figures such as Jennie Formby from positions of influence and the new milquetoast politics of Keir Starmer’s new regime, many socialists in Labour are understandably fed up and looking for alternatives.
But alternatives to UK’s Labour Party will be hard to find. This is not the first time that a substantial portion of the British left have looked for a new parliamentary vehicle for socialism – but none have been successful.
Following the Labour Party’s horrendous betrayal of the miner’s strike under Neil Kinnock, former National Union of Mineworkers leader established the Socialist Labour Party which struggled to gain more than a handful of councillor seats amongst the organised bastions of trade union militancy in Scotland and Yorkshire.
The ‘Socialist Alliance’ – primarily an alliance between the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party – also took a few council seats around the end of the 90s and early noughties but once again never broke through.
Respect, George Galloway’s party, successfully challenged for the Bethnall Green and Bow seat in 2005 on the back of huge anti-war sentiment following the invasion of Iraq… and although Galloway was able to repeat his success as an independent in Bradford in 2015, the Respect coalition also fell apart.
Not just in Britain, but also across Europe have attempts to replace traditional Social Democratic Parties failed to gain traction. The Linkspartei in Germany, whilst successfully crippling the former Social Democratic Party, appears to have reached its capacity in mopping up on post-communist sentiment in industrial areas of East Germany. Rifondazione Communista in Italy – after a promising breakaway – also collapsed. Syriza in Greece successfully supplanted Pasok as the new social democratic party, but has struggled in power to retain its principles and now stands as a generic centre-left party managing Greek austerity. Podemos in Spain has also run out of steam.
What has been missing from all of these movements – why do these parties have such short life-spans? To find the answer to that question it’s important to look back at the history of the origins of the British Labour Party.
Labour was not simply formed out of thin air with the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 – although this is where many histories of Labour start. For at least 150 years before 1900, the British labour movement had been developing through the cooperative movement, the trade union movement and the international socialist movement – without parliamentary-political representation.
These movements created a bedrock of rooted community organisations, intellectual and literary movements, cultural movements and socialist societies and parties which would ultimately unify to form Labour – each of these organisations existing in its own right, with its own loyal members and adherents.
The first recorded co-operative ever founded was the Shore Pointers Society, formed in Aberdeen in 1498 – however the first documented consumer cooperative was founded in 1769 – the birth of what we know now as the ‘co-operative movement’. In 1775 the first Building Society was formed – Richard Ketley’s in Birmingham – mutual banks operating for the purposes of enabling working people to build and buy their own homes. In amongst the poorest and most poverty-stricken areas of newly industrialising Britain, working people were organising with one another to overcome their poor conditions and live in dignity.
By 1830, hundreds of co-ops had established themselves nationwide, and in 1844 the ‘Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers’ established the ‘Rochdale principles’ of the co-operative movement, and in 1863 the Co-operative Wholesale Industrial and Provident Society launched in Manchester, uniting 300 co-operatives across Yorkshire and Lancashire.
As early as 1881, the Co-operative Federation founded its own Parliamentary Committee for the promotion of Co-operative ideals in British politics – and the Co-operative Party was founded formally in 1917. By 1927, it had formed an electoral pact with Labour which lasts on to this day.
The developing Trade Union movement was also fundamental to the foundation of early Labour. Since the decline of the Medieval Guilds at the dawn of early capitalism, ‘Luddites’ (named after a mythical ‘Ned Ludd’) were workers taken to smashing up the new machinery of the industrial revolution in protest against the removal of skill and artifice from modern techniques of production – with the movement reaching its peak during the Napoleonic wars between 1803-1815. From the Luddites arose a rich intellectual tradition in Britain, articulated most completely by the Arts and Crafts movement which strove for the preservation of ornate intricacy and design from the 1850s, led by individuals such as William Morris who would go on to become a central figure in the British Labour movement. Luddism also combined with the suppression of early trade unions, which up until 1823 were illegal. Across the areas ‘industrial belt’ areas of the industrial revolution – the Scottish lowlands, Northern England, South Wales and the Midlands working people were more and more organising themselves into organisations rebelling against the increasing mechanisation of labour and the worsening of living conditions.
The Trades Union Congress would go on to be founded in 1868 by Manchester and Salford Trades Council – who went on to form the Labour Representation League in 1869 supporting working class parliamentary candidates in coalition with the Liberal Party, bolstering this position with the formation of the electoral committee in 1886.
The birth of Labour was also foreshadowed by the emergence of multiple socialist parties in British politics, which would ultimately combine.
The Scottish Labour Party, lead by Keir Hardie, was founded in 1888 after the Liberals refused to back in him an unsuccessful bid for the Mid Lanarkshire by-election. Formed from a coalition of local miners, the Dundee Radical Association and the Scottish Land Restoration League, the new party contained Irish Nationalists like John Ferguson, land reformers such as Shaw Maxwell and miners’ leader Robert Smillie. In 1892 the TUC held a meeting calling for the establishment of an independent labour organisation – and subsequently Hardie was elected president of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) at its formation in 1894 (after which the Scottish Labour Party dissolved itself in 1895).
The Social Democratic Federation was founded in 1881 – with the support of key figures such as William Morris, George Lansbury, James Connolly and Eleanor Marx. Set up as an explicitly Marxist organisation, the Federation began to bleed members to the ILP and eventually formed part of the 1900 conference to establish the Labour Representation Committee.
The Fabian Society was also formed in 1881, born from the ‘Fellowship of the New Life’ – a descendent of the British ethical and humanist movements. The Fabians quickly attracted intellectual figures such as George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Annie Besant, Graham Wallas, Charles Marson, Ramsay MacDonald and Emmeline Pankhurst. Speaking of the foundation of the Fabians, Annie Besant was quoted,
But the general idea is that each man should have power according to his knowledge and capacity. […] And the keynote is that of my fairy State: From every man according to his capacity; to every man according to his needs. A democratic Socialism, controlled by majority votes, guided by numbers, can never succeed; a truly aristocratic Socialism, controlled by duty, guided by wisdom, is the next step upwards in civilisation – Annie Besant
It was at the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 that it was agreed between these three parties to establish “a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour”. The LRC was established consisting of two members from the Social Democratic Federation and the ILP, one member of the Fabian Society and seven trade unionists.
What is clear from the history of the British Labour Party – reflected in the histories of other Western Social Democratic parties – is the rich social ecosystem of socialist societies, trade unions, political parties and intellectual and cultural movements on which it was based. It is a travesty today to see the ancestors of many of these organisations in the Labour movement – worn-out husks trading off their past glories. But the reality is that nothing like their early equivalents exists today.
Without that basis in a strong, working class socialist movement – the roots of any new Labour Party would be incredibly weak. Lessons hard learned elsewhere on the continent in recent years. Centuries of organisation and tradition cannot simply be replaced overnight – and the tribal voting attachments of many working class Labour voters were earned over generations of real struggle. Any new parliamentary vehicle would be bound to fail just as others have done – with no serious connection to base itself in.
Rather than looking to found new parties, socialists should be looking to rebuild the foundations of a socialist culture, working class self-organisation and intellectual life. Through building up new trade unions, bringing communities together, encouraging writing, arts and philosophical debate – we can breathe life once more into our movement.